Last night a new organization, Friends of Santa Fe Trail, held a well-attended public meeting at Professional Bank to introduce the organization, provide some update on the trail and to recruit participants for the group’s activities. The Friends stated purpose is to supplement and support the trail by developing a detailed vision for future improvements (a master plan) and raising funds to pay for and implement this vision. Currently, only the basic components of the trail are funded; the 12′ wide strip of concrete and a bridge over Garland Road. Friends of the the Santa Fe Trail hope to augment these features significantly. Currently, Phase II from Fair Park to Glasgow is well under construction. Phase I from Glasgow to White Rock Lake is scheduled to begin at the end of this year. This could be a good effort because there appears to be a real need for a vision. And in developing this vision, we should first clearly understand what we’re getting.

For starters, while this and similar facilities are referred to as "trails", that term appears to be marketing optimism. Make no mistake, it’s a road. A road primarily for bicycles. A 12 foot wide ribbon of concrete. For all the talk about recreation, views and amenities, my conversations with City staff and others made it very clear that this is part of a County-wide transportation plan, it is significantly funded by and overseen by TxDOT, and it’s primary purpose is to move people, just like any other road. If you want it pretty, then someone else has to pay for that. If you want a road surface that is both environmentally friendly and better adapted for walkers and hikers like Austin uses, get someone else to pay for that too and put it off to the side, away from the road.

How much like a road is it? The signage package is one clue. How about standard triangular "Yield" signs at the points where sidewalks intersect? Or steep grade warning signs. I’ve hiked mountain trails and never seen a grade warning sign, but that’s a different kind of "trail" altogether I guess. There is even a wide variety of the traditional diamond-shaped signs illustrating curves ahead. While it is designed for bikes, it would all be very familiar to you were you to drive on it in a car. My favorite feature is the grooves in the pavement, like those as you approach toll booths, that are designed to make noise and vibration to get your attention before coming to, in this case, an intersection.

You have probably figured out by now that I’m worried. I am a regular user of what is known as the Phase I section of this trail. It’s an amazingly beautiful and pastoral escape that I, and many others, take advantage of many times a week.  It provides the unique sensation of walking a country lane even though you are in the heart of a major American city. Walking this trail as it exists, one can see a great deal of wildlife. In addition to racoons and possums, cotton tail rabbits flourish here. There is a large population of noisy frogs in the wetlands adjacent to the Brookside/Monte Vista bridge. The swarm of black birds that plague Lakewood do no harm here as they roost at night in the large bamboo stand near East Grand.  The rabbits probably explain why I so often see the large owls that hunt this area. A friend even spotted a pair of coyotes recently. All of this is easily visible to those who seek them because the rock road bed that was left after the removal of the tracks provides an excellent, permeable, all-weather surface that is pretty much mud-free in rain, sleet and snow. There are hikers, dog walkers and even bicyclists to be found using it.

I am not opposed to change and I am certainly not concerned about more people discovering and enjoying this amazing piece of Hidden Dallas. I am worried, however, about losing it altogether. I worry that no one else will be able to enjoy the experience that the current users have, an experience I believe to be unique to the trail system. This will happen if the current vision that is commonly held of these trails is implemented. Amid last nights discussions were suggestions of artwork, benches, lights, fountains, even retail. Nothing wrong with those things, except we have them in abundance already. The beautiful natural areas I describe are what is in short supply, and they are dwindling all the time. Just because we like the Katy Trail shouldn’t mean that they all need to look like that.

My vision is for something else, for preservation and appreciation of an area that has existed in a near natural state for decades. At least up to Garland Road. Let the mowed grass and the picnic tables and the parking lots begin on the other side.

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